My travel dynamics—frequency and range

After 25 years of almost monthly travel to interview audio designers and to shoot images and videos, I am almost certain I’ve visited more hi-fi companies than anyone else on the planet. To me, frequent travel is a key part of the job that, time-consuming as it is, feels quite natural; but it seems to baffle some of my peers.

The main reason I began making these trips, back in 1997, was to see manufacturing facilities and processes in person and get a more complete picture of the products I was reviewing before they landed on my doorstep. That’s still true today. I also wanted to gain insight into the design and development process of products, from their inception to release. I would often learn of novel, innovative design features that I would then relay to our readers.

Alfred Alissa DougAlfred Vassilkov, Alissa Vassilkova, and Doug Schneider

My latest trip, in early March, took me and videographers Chris Chitaroni and Jeremy Prudhomme to Tallinn, Estonia, home of loudspeaker maker Estelon. Estelon was founded in 2010 by a family team that included Alfred Vassilkov, the company’s chief designer, and his two daughters, Kristiina and Alissa Vassilkova, with Alissa taking on the role of CEO. This was my second visit to Estelon; my first was in the summer of 2017. The company has grown since then, and I wanted to go back to see what had changed. Furthermore, at the time of my first visit, I had not yet heard any of Estelon’s speakers in my home. I had only read reviews of some models, and I had seen and heard some at shows. This time around, I had first-hand experience with the brand: I’ve been living with a pair of Estelon’s Aura loudspeakers since the middle of 2023. And so I was eager to learn more about the Aura’s design and how it is being made. Of course, I wanted to see Estelon’s other products too.

Cancellations, delays, couch naps—all in a day’s work

To get the most out of our typically weeklong trips overseas, we normally arrange to visit at least two companies for interviews and video shoots. On this trip, however, we had a single destination on our itinerary: Estelon. The trip would be shorter (little did we know), and we would be spared the hassle of having to scramble from one destination to the next—piece of cake. But it started off with a hiccup.

The first flight Chris and I were going to take (Jeremy was traveling from another city) was canceled. I’ve had my share of flight cancellations over the years and learned not to get too stressed about them. In my experience, Air Canada, the airline I used for this and most other trips, has always been quick to act on such issues. True to form, within 30 minutes of the cancellation notification, I received another, informing me of our rescheduled flight: a three-leg route with longer layover times. A trip that was supposed to take 15 hours would now take 20, and we would arrive too late in the day to be able to do much.

Tallinn Old TownTallinn Old Town

On the day after our arrival, we were informed that due to an upcoming Lufthansa strike, the first flight of our return trip was canceled too. Lufthansa, dismayingly, did nothing to resolve the mess. I called Air Canada and arranged for an alternative journey back: same date and total travel time but an earlier departure—six hours earlier. This meant a 4 a.m. wake-up and even less time in Estonia.

With our late arrival and early departure, this trip turned out to be a little intense and more tiring than usual. (One day at the factory, lounging on a comfy couch, I actually fell asleep for 30 minutes!) But the results were worth it. We shot the videos we wanted, and I got to explore the facility and talk to people and learn new things.

Quality costs

Estelon’s current speaker lineup ranges from the Aura, which in the standard white finish retails for $19,900 (all prices in USD for a pair), to the Extreme Mk II, which in one of its four standard finishes—Bronze Royale, Lunar Eclipse, Midnight Opera, and Nordic Emerald—retails for $269,000. Five optional colors are available for the Aura, named Amber Elegance, Black Gloss, Horizon Blue, Iron Grey, and Starlight. The price increases variously with these options, topping at $25,400. An optional Rolls-Royce-inspired Dark Silver finish is available for the Extreme Mk II, which increases its price to $290,000.

Auras in colorsAuras in colors

Needless to say, Estelon’s speakers aren’t cheap. Watching the way they’re made reveals at least one reason why. We saw a half-dozen technicians painting, sanding, and assembling several pairs of Auras, a pair of Extreme Mk IIs, and a couple of pairs of other models—speakers are made in pairs at the Estelon factory. The precision and painstaking attention to detail in the assembly process were manifest. After assembly, speakers are measured in various ways to ensure they meet strict technical criteria and then undergo subjective evaluation in Estelon’s onsite listening room.

I’ve seen a lot of pricey speakers being built over the years and was surprised at how long build time was at Estelon—using cabinets that had already been sanded and painted, a process that takes many hours itself. I was observing an assembly team as they built the crossovers for a pair of Auras and fit them into the cabinets, then filled each cabinet with damping and other materials, and finally wired up the drivers and attached them to the cabinets. I was standing there for quite a while! That pair of Extreme Mk IIs we saw were in the final-assembly phase the entire time we were there. They were still being worked on when we left. Alissa told me that assembling some Estelon models, including the Aura, takes around two days. But it takes two technicians about two weeks to assemble a pair of Extreme Mk IIs.

Horizon Blue AurasHorizon Blue Auras being built

I noticed that technicians at the factory moved and worked unhurriedly, methodically, taking as much time as necessary to do each task properly. I was surprised to see that most of them leave by 4 p.m. each day and asked Vassilkov about that. He explained that to achieve the build quality they need, employees mustn’t be working too quickly or for too long; otherwise, mistakes could get made. It is decidedly not a sweat shop, the Estelon factory.

Estelon’s cabinets, it should be noted, aren’t built in-house, and neither are the drivers. The Aura cabinet, which is made from a thermoformed mineral-filled composite, is supplied by a Latvian company that specializes in the use of this material. The cabinets of Estelon’s other models are made in Estonia of a marble-based composite by a company specializing in that material. When they arrive at the Estelon factory, cabinets are a little rough around the edges. It takes a good deal of finishing work to prepare them for painting, a process I also observed during my visit. Estelon’s drivers come mainly from Accuton but, depending on the model, also from Scan-Speak, SB Acoustics, and Faital.

In 2017, when I last visited Estelon, cabinet painting was outsourced; now it’s done in-house. Although painting is commonly thought to be a trivial part of the manufacturing process, I know from experience how much skill and time it takes to do it well. When I was 18 years old, I considered becoming an autobody technician and took a six-week course to get a feel for the work. This ambition arose after a minor car accident I’d had two years earlier. My car was barely damaged, and it should have been an easy fix. But when it came out of the shop, the damaged area was easily visible and remained an eyesore for me for as long as I owned that car. It occurred to me then that repainting a car with a factory-grade paint of perfectly matching color and finish must be very difficult, if even possible. This spurred me to learn more about the subject and ultimately to sign up for that course—I would be able to do it perfectly! I began to pay close attention to the paint job on cars and could soon identify with ease repainted areas, however small. I also developed a critical eye for how well the paint had been applied: unevenness, blemishes, adhered dust, orange-peel surfaces, and other anomalies—all became obvious to me at a glance, an ability that sharpened with time.

SandingChris Chitaroni filming final sanding

I am therefore reasonably confident in my assessment that the painted cabinets I saw at Estelon were flawless—wherever and however hard I looked and with whatever illumination, I failed to find any flaws. And from what I could tell, the same rigorous finishing and painting process is applied to every Estelon model. The paint color or type or thickness may differ between models, but the outstanding workmanship is the same. As with automotive paint, it takes skill and time to achieve that, which is why the optional colors of the Aura hike its price so much. To my eyes, the unpainted white, the material’s natural color, looks gorgeous. It’s the color of my sample pair and what I’d choose if I were to buy them. I must say, though, that I find the Amber Elegance color quite fetching too—in a bolder, flashier way.

Form and function and acoustic correctness

As I mentioned, having had the Auras at home for a while made this trip more interesting for me. I was eager to learn more about this, the newest model in Estelon’s speaker range. Although it is Estelon’s entry-level model, the streamlined, svelte Aura is arguably the most elegant of the lot. I find its form as attractive as, if not more attractive than, some of the company’s more expensive models. Alfred and Alissa seemed to appreciate my attraction to the Aura. Alissa pointed out subtle design elements, which until then had escaped my notice, that enhance the overall effect of the design—the subtle concavity of the angled top, for instance.

As enthralled as I have been with their look in my home, it was the sound of the Auras that took me aback—so much so that I decided to follow up my November 2023 "System One" column about this speaker with a more detailed standalone review, which is being published on this site as this article goes live. The Aura is so good, and in so many ways, it does deserve all this attention.

Alfred VassilkovAlfred Vassilkov with Iron Grey Auras

I spoke with Vassilkov at length during my visit about the acoustic design of his speakers. I learned that while some elements of acoustic design are unique to his speakers, a few others are also found in some form on speakers by Laurence Dickie, one of my favorite loudspeaker designers and the founder of Vivid Audio (formerly a senior design engineer with Bowers & Wilkins). Intriguingly, Vassilkov alluded to certain other design features but remained secretive about them. As with Dickie’s designs, Vassilkov’s embody the paradigm of form following function: acoustic criteria prevail over aesthetic criteria in Estelon speakers. Given their striking appearance, this is surprising. You’d assume it’s aesthetics that’s been driving Vassilkov’s design. Not so, he maintains.

One goal of acoustic design both Dickie and Vassilkov strive to achieve is an absence of resonance, to ensure a colorless, transparent sound. To attain this goal, the Aura cabinets are made of a composite material of very high stiffness. Having non-parallel surfaces inside and out also helps combat resonance. Sure enough, the transparency and openness of the Auras were apparent to me from the first moment I listened to them in my home. It’s the first thing visitors notice, too, when they hear them play. Another objective Dickie and Vassilkov share is the elimination of edge diffraction. To this end, speaker cabinets of both makers are formed with smooth, curvy surfaces around drivers.

Nailing the bass in a speaker-room system

Listening to the Auras at home, what struck me most was the quality and level of bass. The Aura doesn’t produce the deepest bass in the world—it’s a moderate-size speaker with a single 10″ woofer in a sealed enclosure—but its bass was deep enough and authoritative. More important, it was perfectly balanced with the midrange and high frequencies. You’d expect such tonal balance from any decent speaker, but you’d be surprised how many speakers, even some very expensive ones, have a disproportionate level of bass relative to the higher frequencies. If the level of bass is too low, even a large speaker can sound anemic; if it is too high, it can overshadow higher frequencies. The Aura (and the Extreme Mk II, as you’ll read below) just nails the bass.

I spoke with Vassilkov about attaining tonal balance. An important consideration when designing speakers, he said, is the speaker’s interaction with the room across the audible frequency range. That’s why woofers in his speakers are set low, close to the floor, for instance—to allow them to better couple with it acoustically. The down-firing woofer of the Aura, a configuration unique to this model in the Estelon range, takes this idea further. It loads the room more evenly, Vassilkov believes, providing great bass response and flexible speaker placement. I concur; the Auras were a snap to set up in my listening room.

Extreme Mk II speakersEstelon Extreme Mk II loudspeakers

The Extreme Mk II, at the extreme end of Estelon’s product line, has two low-mounted 11″ woofers, set at about 90-degree angles to each other, which produces better bass loading in the kind of large, high-ceiling room this speaker needs. Vassilkov took speaker-room interaction further still with the Extreme Mk II, making the cabinet section that holds the three top drivers—an 11″ mid-woofer, a 7″ midrange, and a 1″ tweeter—adjustable in height. This allows the speakers to be optimized for the listening room and for the sitting position and ear height. The tweeters can then be fine-tuned for the listening position by a small fore/aft adjustment. (These adjustments are performed remotely.)

I spent a long while in Estelon’s demo room, listening to the pair of Extreme Mk IIs that Vassilkov had set up for us. A full complement of MSB Technology electronics was driving the speakers, connected by a mix of Kubala-Sosna and Crystal Cable wires. I came away deeply impressed. Vassilkov first played some of his demo tracks and then let me play some of mine so that I could hear exactly what was happening. Listening intently to those familiar tracks, I found the imaging aptitude of these speakers compelling: as sound sources, they vanished, leaving distinct sonic images planted unambiguously on a wide, deep soundstage. Bruce Cockburn in “Pacing the Cage,” one of my favorite go-to audition tracks, was imaged dead center, his voice reproduced with astounding clarity and spot-on tonality. Bass was extraordinarily deep and powerful but not so much that it obscured the midrange and highs. In fact, the mid and high frequencies on this track, as on others, were as clear as I’ve ever heard. The sound was grand—the Extreme Mk II energizes a large volume of air—but, surprisingly, it didn’t overpower the demo room, which was not very large. While we were busy on the factory floor shooting footage, I later realized, Vassilkov busied himself for a couple of hours tweaking the speakers’ positions to perfection in that room, whose acoustics he knows very well.

Extreme clay modelsMiniature Extreme Mk II clay models

The family resemblance between the Estelon Aura and Extreme Mk II in appearance and build is apparent. In terms of size, styling, design complexity, materials, driver complement, and sound, however, everything went to the Extreme—it is an order-of-magnitude step up from the Aura, but so is its price.

Excellence and originality

Much was seen and discussed during our visit to Estelon, as will be covered in a forthcoming series of videos. This prefatory article is but a taste of things to come, and I’ll close with my two main takeaways from this trip. They can be summed up in two words that popped to mind when I sat down to write this article.

The first word was excellence, which has to do with the quality of the Estelon products and the resulting sound from them. Estelon speakers aren’t cheap because nothing about them is. The second word was originality. That’s because visually, the speakers look like no other. They also stand apart sonically.

Estelon is but one of great many speaker makers today. I’ve often said that half the current number of speaker companies would be twice too many. With its original designs and excellent sound, Estelon stands out, and stands high, in the crowded high-end hi-fi marketplace—not an easy thing to do.

. . . Doug Schneider